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20 words for a new world: Square

20 words for a new world: Square

And what of the public space? I suppose the physical public space, of the outdoor variety, has always had more prominence in a place like Italy, with its pleasant climate, than in locations further north. I’m talking about the feeling that life is largely lived outside, under the arcades of the jostling piazza, that northerners sense with a sort of thrilled excitement when they venture south of the Alps.

Or think of the “Arab street” – the phrase obviously rooted in the fact that the urban outdoors is the focus of social and political activity.

That way of life, which has been going on for millennia, since civilisation first appeared, will obviously not end.

It has survived plagues far worse than Covid-19 in the past. (This point should perhaps be discreetly emphasised – Covid-19 is not the worst crisis in history.)

But cities everywhere will surely be reshaped by this crisis.

Again, these are mostly processes that were already happening.

The coronavirus just gives them an extra push.

Traditional retail looks more doomed than ever.

It also seems likely that less office space will be needed than currently exists, since many office workers, having realised that they can do most of their jobs from home, will want to carry on doing so even when the crisis subsides. The internet had already made the 20th-century office an anachronism and this new way of working might be one of the most dramatic long-term changes brought about by the current situation.

Not least because it will have all sorts of knock-on effects. It will transform the whole pattern of people’s lives. It will blur the line – always artificial but sustained by the existence of a place called “the office” – between “life” and “work”. This may have many beneficial consequences. But the commercial districts of city centres will surely suffer. The restaurants where the office workers used to have lunch will struggle to replace them. Commuter stations will seem empty and many of the shops and coffee bars that we find there will wither away. As economic activity drifts to the internet (and to unimaginably huge warehouses in the middle of nowhere), there will be a lot of empty space in city centres. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, the British government has already announced new rules to make it much easier to convert shops and offices into homes. High streets, once bustling with businesses and now dismally boarded up, the fatal blow delivered by the virus, will try to reinvent themselves as residential spaces and they may well succeed, given the current shortage of housing, especially for the young.

But, of course, “the office” in its great twentieth century incarnation was also a place of social interaction. It was itself a kind of public square. (In America this aspect of it is synecdochised as “the water-cooler”.)

That forum too will be lost, perhaps to be replaced by others, many of which will no doubt be online.

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